Washed away Placer County's rapid response to build a bridge and reconnect a stranded community in Alta

In the winter of early 2017, a series of massive storms ripped through Placer County like a buzzsaw; knocking down trees, flooding roads, creating mud slides, dumping historic amounts of snow in the Sierra Nevada and washing out the Morton Road culvert at Canyon Creek in Alta - stranding a small but strong community.

It's Jan. 10, around 10 p.m. Matt Randall, a senior project engineer, is wrapping up a long stretch of work at the county's emergency operations center in North Auburn. The EOC is activated during emergencies like a fire or flood so the county can help facilitate resources for first responders and county services to protect the community.

With a break in the storm, the flurry of activity in the EOC is calming down to a quiet stillness.

Then the phones light up.

On one of those calls is Don Anderson with the county's road maintenance team.

An exhausted Anderson, who’d been working 16-hour-days, explains that the culvert at Morton Road in Alta has washed away.

Just off the Alta exit on Interstate 80, high flows of water in Canyon Creek have exceeded the capacity of the culvert at Morton Road and caused a catastrophic collapse, blowing-out the road, the only point-of-entry into a swath of 15 homes and a Sons of Norway recreational center and lodge (known as Camp Norge).

Randall listens in disbelief as Anderson describes the situation, his fears forming.

Unsuspecting motorists might drive off the icy edge of the broken road, plunging 40 feet to the bottom of a roaring Canyon Creek.

Within moments, Placer road crews are speeding to install barricades and close what remains of Morton Road.

STRANDED: Alta residents are all but cutoff from the outside world - and emergency services.

The wash out litters Canyon Creek with broken asphalt, gnarled metal, rock and snapped trees.

With a stroke of luck, Anderson along with Placer senior engineer Kevin Ordway and road maintenance manager Kevin Taber, learn that a steep, winding gravel road over private property could offer residents a way in and out of the neighborhood. It’s not ideal but there are no other options.

Both engineering and maintenance staff realize that the gravel road cannot accommodate large fire engines for emergency responders to provide critical life-saving services. Typically, a project of this magnitude to rebuild a road like Morton would take four to six years to plan and complete. With the summer heat and fire season only five short months away the county needs to act now and act fast.

While county staff work feverishly on a plan to replace Morton Road, Jerry and Kinsey Smith graciously accept an agreement with the county to allow their neighbors to use the private road across their property, and for the county to make improvements to help make it more passable.

With a point-of-entry and exit now in play, Randall and Ordway assemble a team and begin drawing up reconstruction plans, deciding to replace the culvert with a new bridge, a much faster and cheaper way to restore access. It’s also a greener option, which will help to restore Canyon Creek back to its original slopes and topography, and restore habitat for indigenous species such as frogs and turtles.

At the bottom of the photo, crews work to install a bridge abutments. Across the creek a drill rig grinds through deep bedrock, creating a deep hole to be filled with concrete, forming the foundation for the second abutment.

With time being of the essence, the bridge contract is awarded to RNR Construction, who can deliver a new bridge by the end of June under the estimated $3 million price tag.

The Placer County Board of Supervisors quickly give the county and RNR Construction the green light to begin around-the-clock construction of a new bridge.

A concrete crane pump hose is lowered into bottom of the drill site, filling the deep cavity.

Five semi-trucks arrive from Lathrop, California, each carrying 113-foot-long, 50-plus-ton girders that will form the span of the bridge.

To hoist the girders into place, RNR Construction calls in the largest hydraulic crane in California.

Towering toward the sky, the 500-ton hydraulic truck crane will be used to lift and place the girders across Canyon Creek.
Flanked on either side by massive counterweights a crane operator carefully negotiates the heavy payload.

Girders are hoisted into the air, carefully guided across Canyon Creek as a new bridge starts to take form.

With clear weather, the right equipment and man power, placement of girders only takes one day to complete.

Rebar is bent by hand into a mesh of interlocked steel - giving shape and strength to the concrete about to be poured.


Crews begin pouring and smoothing out the concrete bridge deck while a paving machine is driven across rails to flatten and cure the concrete, giving it a nice finishing grade.

Using a remote-controlled crane, a long tube pours concrete as the construction crew works at a brisk pace to spread the mix over the rebar.
A construction worker looks on as he remotely guides the towering crane over the site.
A crew works in unison, raking concrete to make sure it’s even and void of any air pockets.
A worker uses a magnesium float to pull a cream of cement to the surface as a paving machine makes its way across to the other side.
A worker runs a coarse broom across the fresh road surface giving it texture for a nice, even traction.

The area around the bridge may look barren now but not for long. A re-vegetation effort will be underway in the fall as the county will return to hydroseed the area with native plants and trees to return the landscape to its natural state.

Nearly six months since its collapse, emergency repairs of the new Morton Road Bridge over Canyon Creek are complete. To help celebrate the reopening, the county holds a small ribbon-cutting ceremony to share thanks with all the nearby residents, construction crews, partnering agencies and county staff.

Placer County Chairwoman and District 5 Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery addresses the audience, giving credit to the residents of Alta for their flexibility and patience during the long winter.

"The winter of 2017 was the winter that never seemed to end. I cannot commend county and RNR Construction enough for their dedication and perseverance to complete our mission within such a short time span," said Placer County Chairwoman and District 5 Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery.

Placer County senior project engineer Matt Randall explains how the community of Alta and various Placer County departments worked together to help expedite reconstruction efforts.
Placer County senior project manager Kevin Ordway talks about how RNR Construction crews hit the project hard from day one through tough conditions.
Placer County community relations coordinator Jennifer Merino discusses the project with a local resident.

Among those affected by the washout was Camp Norge, a 46-acre family camp founded in 1957 by members of the Norwegian cultural heritage group Sons of Norway.

Sons of Norway District 6 President Mary Beth Ingvoldstad explains how the bridge reopening was critical to Camp Norge and all the programs and activities it offers during the summer.

Camp Norge members came in from all of over the area to show their appreciation for the completed bridge and even provided workers with a Norwegian-style lunch back at Camp Norge, complete with meatballs.

Kevin Ordway digs into a helping of delicious meatballs.

Complete and on schedule...

...and open for business.

Story produced by

Placer County Communications and Public Affairs

Connect with Placer County


Story & Design: Scott Sandow, Photography: Erik Bergen

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